August 22, 2020

Lessons From the Recent Standoff in Cedar Park, TX


Dear PERF members, 

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Mike Harmon, Interim Chief of the Cedar Park, TX Police Department, about a recent incident that drew national attention because it speaks to some of the issues confronting policing today.

Cedar Park is a community of nearly 80,000 people located about 16 miles north of Austin. Last Sunday, a 26-year-old man in a mental health crisis arrived at his mother’s home around 3:00 pm. He kicked in the front door and began acting aggressively, so the woman called 9-1-1. Two of his siblings were also home at the time.

Three Cedar Park officers responded. The address was known to police from previous calls, so the officers approached with caution. As they reached the door, the man inside opened fire.

One officer was struck in the upper bicep area, suffering a serious injury that required surgery. He was released from the hospital on Wednesday and is expected to make a full recovery, but will likely be out for 9-12 months. A second officer was hit in the rib area; the ballistic vest prevented serious injury and may have saved the officer’s life. The third officer suffered a graze wound to the top of the head that required stitches.

The officers managed to return fire before backing out of the home and repositioning to a safe location. The gunman then barricaded himself in the home, with his mother and two others inside.

Cedar Park Police called in additional resources, and over the next 18 hours negotiated with the gunman. In the end, he surrendered peacefully, with no additional shots fired and no one else injured. The suspect is now in the Williamson County Jail facing three counts of aggravated assault against a public servant, and a mental health evaluation has been ordered.

Reflecting on this incident, two things struck me.

First was the bravery, patience, and decision-making displayed by the initial responding officers and the other personnel on the scene.

Facing an armed suspect and with other people in the home, it obviously would have been unsafe for the officers to continue engaging the gunman and try to make entry. The officers knew that their best chance for success was to step back, slow the situation down, and come up with a Plan B.

That type of thinking has become ingrained in the men and women of the Cedar Park Police Department. Back in December 2016, then-Chief Sean Mannix and his then-Assistant Chief Mike Harmon traveled to New Orleans for PERF’s initial rollout of ICAT—Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics. They joined more than 400 other police officials from across the country to learn about this new approach to de-escalation and to see it demonstrated through scenario-based exercises.

Sean and Mike returned to Cedar Park and quickly implemented the training in their agency. Cedar Park was the first agency in Texas, and among the first nationwide, to adopt ICAT.

All members of the Cedar Park Police Department receive ICAT training, plus another 40 hours of specialized mental health training. Thinking strategically about calls for service involving people in a mental health crisis is now part of the DNA of Cedar Park police officers.

As Mike told me, “We emphasize de-escalation and not rushing anything. Mental health patients aren’t always in the right frame of mind or thinking rationally or clearly. So we have to take the extra time to develop a relationship with them and communicate effectively.”

ICAT training is designed primarily for situations in which the subject is unarmed or armed with a weapon other than a firearm. But as the Cedar Park incident demonstrates, the underlying principles of ICAT – in particular, the focus on critical decision-making and the sanctity of life – can be applied during more dynamic encounters involving firearms as well.

My second reflection on the Cedar Park incident involves the “defund” issue.

Across the country, there are growing calls to take responsibilities and resources away from police departments and shift them to other agencies. One area that many defund advocates have singled out is the response to calls involving people in a mental health crisis.

The argument is that police officers don’t have the level of training and expertise in mental health issues and, therefore, are not the ideal first responders in these situations. Instead, advocates argue that mental health professionals are better suited to handle these encounters.

As logical as that argument may sound on paper, think about how it might have played out in Cedar Park. What if, instead of police officers, mental health staff had been dispatched to that call? I seriously doubt the incident would have ended the way it did.

Mental health calls are unpredictable. They may start out as benign and seemingly uneventful, but as the case in Cedar Park demonstrates, they can become volatile and violent in a heartbeat.

Think about the implications for a minute. In this case you had three police officers who encountered gunfire, and all three were struck. A few inches here or there, and there could have been three dead or more seriously injured officers.

But those officers had the training, equipment, and tactical know-how to respond quickly and safely to an extremely dangerous situation. Police officers and sheriffs’ deputies never know what they are walking into, and they are trained and prepared for a range of eventualities.

Sending three social workers or mental health clinicians into that same scenario could have had tragic consequences. They simply do not have the training or equipment to respond to that type of violence. Tactically, I don’t know that social workers or clinicians would have known what to do to get out safely.

In many cases involving people in crisis, it is beneficial to have mental health professionals be a part of the response. Cities such as Eugene (OR), Tucson, Houston, and others have adopted co-response models that pair up police officers and mental health staff on a variety of calls. As these approaches are evaluated and fine-tuned, more cities are likely to move in this direction.

But taking cops totally out of the equation is reckless and dangerous.

Down Interstate 35 from Cedar Park, city leaders in Austin appear to be moving in that direction. Earlier this month, the city council approved a $150 million reduction in the police department’s budget. The cuts will mean the cancellation of three cadet classes, a reduction in overtime, and reduced investments in equipment.

Some of that funding is being redirected to mental health response teams, which is encouraging. But if there are not enough trained police officers to partner with those response teams, the people of Austin will not be safer.

In recent years, Chief Brian Manley has focused on expanding community policing in Austin, to free up officers’ time to engage with the community in identifying and solving problems. And overall, Austin’s crime rate has been trending downward.

But those gains are threatened by the double-whammy of having more officers leave the department and not being able to hire new ones to replace them. Departments can’t engage in meaningful community policing and problem solving if they don’t have enough officers, who are free from the radio and constantly responding to 9-1-1 calls, to get out and work with the community. And as agencies have to curtail hiring or even let personnel go, they tend to lose the younger and more diverse officers who may be more open to new approaches.

The problem with the whole “defund” approach is that it just hasn’t been thought through very well, if at all. In many cases, cities seem to be cutting first and trying to figure out what to do later.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Mike Harrison made this point last week during a Zoom conference announcing the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ new Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice. He said that when cities are building a new sports stadium, they don’t tear down the old one, then start building its replacement. They plan for, design, and erect the new stadium, then transition out of the old one.

The same principle holds true with police reform. Mayors, police chiefs, and reform advocates agree that it is time to reassess and reimagine how public safety is carried out in our country. But that needs to be done in a thoughtful, deliberative, data-driven way, and not by making rash decisions to slash police budgets before the “new stadium” has even been designed.

Back in Cedar Park, city leaders are proposing a modest increase in the police department’s budget. Mayor Corbin Van Arsdale cited last Sunday’s successful resolution of the standoff as a prime example of why the city needs to continue investing in police personnel, equipment, training, and partnerships with other agencies.

Cities will continue to face challenging and dangerous situations like the one last Sunday. When they do, I’d certainly want a well-trained and highly disciplined police officer or sheriff’s deputy to be leading the response and protecting the community.

I hope you have a relaxing weekend.